DEER ISLE — Someone asked Paul Sacaridiz, the new director at Haystack Mountain School of Crafts, if he was going to read poetry during public assemblies at the Deer Isle craft school. Sacaridiz laughed, politely.

“Are you kidding?” he asked.

The question referenced the man that Sacaridiz replaced at Haystack, Stuart Kestenbaum, who is now Maine’s poet laureate. A polished speaker and wordsmith, Kestenbaum sprinkled his talks at Haystack with poems that were appropriate for the moment. The poems, and Kestenbaum’s effortless performance of them, became part of the Haystack experience and a precious memory that students took home with them.

DEER ISLE, ME - JUNE 16: Paul Sacaridiz, director of Haystack Mountain School, talks to Stephen Yusko, one of the school's blacksmithing teachers. (Photo by Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer)

Paul Sacaridiz, director of Haystack Mountain School of Crafts, talks to Stephen Yusko, one of the school’s blacksmithing teachers. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

Sacaridiz, 46, can do many things, but poetry isn’t necessarily one of them.

“I wasn’t hired to be Stu,” he said. “I was hired to run the school.”

That question about poetry, asked in innocence and almost certainly as a joke, focuses on the biggest challenge that Sacaridiz – pronounced “sa-ka-ree-dis”– faces as Haystack’s fourth director in 66 years. His hardest job will be stepping away from Kestenbaum’s significant shadow, and everyone, including Sacaridiz, acknowledges it.

Matt Hutton, a Portland furniture maker, chair of the woodworking department at Maine College of Art and president of the Haystack board, called it “a daunting task.”

Kestenbaum left the school last May. The staff and board ran Haystack last summer, and Sacaridiz arrived in September with the enviable task of “having nothing to fix.” Kestenbaum left him a laptop and a few files of notes about how the place works.

Haystack, nestled among the woods and rocks on a precarious tip of land that extends into the Atlantic, is where artists come to work in rhythm with nature. It offers courses in dozens of craft fields and recruits students and teachers from across Maine and across the country to study and teach one- and two-week intensives in clay, glass, metal, wood and other disciplines.

Sacaridiz spent the fall and winter becoming familiar with the school and Deer Isle, and learning both the winterization and spring-opening routines at the seasonal school. With the summer sessions in full swing, Sacaridiz is seeing Haystack function day-to-day for the first time. “The staff trained me,” he said.

A ceramic artist with a history of solo exhibitions, Sacaridiz also is a committed arts educator and administrator. He was chair of the art department at the University of Wisconsin-Madison before taking the job at Haystack, and he has filled leadership positions at the National Council on Education for the Ceramic Arts and the National Council of Arts Administrators.

He understands Maine, the role of art and culture in the state, and Haystack’s place in Maine art. As an artist, Sacaridiz completed several residencies at the Watershed Center for the Ceramic Arts in Newcastle, including a year-long residency. He was also a student at Haystack and taught here as recently as 2012.

He has his own set of contacts in the field, developed over 20-plus years of teaching and practice, and he can tap them for guidance and feedback, Hutton said. Perhaps most important, Sacaridiz has energy and passion, and he has fully thrust himself into the job of running the school and becoming part of the community.

Haystack is in great shape, Hutton said. It has a stellar reputation for providing a hands-on, exploratory educational environment for serious craft artists across disciplines. It has solid finances, stable enrollments, a strong board and a large community of people in Maine and across the country who love and support it.

“What we need right now is someone who can steer without making a big change,” Hutton said. “We need someone who slowly sees the progression of the field and where Haystack fits in the field.”

DEER ISLE, ME - JUNE 16: Rick Stark, a blacksmithing student at Haystack Mountain School, converts coal into coke. (Photo by Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer)

Rick Stark, a blacksmithing student at Haystack Mountain School of Crafts, converts coal into coke. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

DRAWN TO AMERICAN CRAFT

A New York native, Sacaridiz has been involved with craft since his undergraduate years at Alfred University, where American craft “was the stuff I ate and slept and cared about intensely. It was the center of my life.” He chose ceramics and spent 25 hours in the studio each week.

During his graduate work at the Art Institute of Chicago, he expanded his studio practice to include contemporary art and began exploring the role of ceramics in the visual culture. He became a ceramics-based sculptor, and his work grew larger and structural, and informed by architecture.

“With respect to all potters,” he said, “I’m not.”

He is a sculptor, who has chosen clay as his medium. He’s been involved in arts education nearly 20 years, rising through the ranks of the art department at the University of Wisconsin to the position of department chair.

He gave all that up and moved with his young family to an island in Maine, because Maine was a place he always hoped to return to, where “it felt more like home than where I was from.” The Haystack job combines all his interests: craft, creativity, education and arts administration.

Sacaridiz said his teaching experience at Haystack in 2012 reinforced his love of Haystack and of Maine, and it helped motivate his application when the Haystack director’s job was advertised in late 2014.

His experiences at Watershed and Haystack changed his life, because they helped him think about art differently. At Watershed, he was given the chance to explore his material and discipline in depth, and engage in conversations with other artists about their work. It was an intensive and self-revealing experience, he said. At Haystack, he became exposed to different approaches to teaching that were more immersive and environmental than what he was used to.

The common thread between them was Maine, he said. He realized how special Maine is and how the environment informs the work of artists who live here.

Other than expressing his own personality, Sacaridiz wants to accomplish several things at Haystack. Most important is ensuring the school remains a leader in its field by setting the conversation and tone about craft in American culture. “We need to make sure we stay relevant,” he said. “The craft world is different now than it was in the 1980s and the 1990s. There are radical changes, and we need to make sure we are a place that is always aware of that, always asking questions and forming the conversations.”

Sacaridiz wants to broaden the reach of Haystack. He wants to explore partnerships with other arts groups, locally and nationally. He would like to see the school conduct more scholarship and research, and produce papers and publish writings, a process common among academic institutions,

He also wants to make sure the Haystack facilities stay in good shape. The buildings and the physical campus receive annual upgrades and are well-tended to, he said, but the equipment in the studios could use a review — to ensure that it is modern and efficient, and also to make sure it continues to fit the school and its mission as both evolve. He wants Haystack to strive for greater diversity in the students and faculty it recruits and to provide ample scholarships, “so that the people who should come here do come here,” he said.

‘THE RIGHT SIZE’

One thing he won’t do is begin a campaign to expand the school. He is not interested in growth and told the Haystack hiring committee as much during his interview. “If you want someone who will come in and grow the school, I won’t do that,” he said. “I believe this place is the right size.”

Lissa Hunter, who chairs Haystack’s board of trustees, said Sacaridiz impressed her during his interview with his knowledge and education, as well as his passion for Haystack and his “desperate desire to be a part of it.” Since then, she’s been most impressed with his ability to listen and learn. He doesn’t pretend to know more than anyone else, she said.

Rich Howe, a trustee emeritus, is Sacaridiz’ closest contact in Deer Isle. They are year-round neighbors, and Sacaridiz turns to Howe for day-to-day advice. Howe said Sacaridiz has done a good job introducing himself around Deer Isle and getting to know local people and local arts organizations.

It hasn’t been easy. Sacaridiz has never lived on an island before, and the transition from living in a bustling city like Madison, Wisconsin, has been challenging, especially for his family.

Succeeding someone like Kestenbaum, whom Sacaridiz called “the smartest guy in the room,” makes it all the more difficult.

Fran Rudoff, executive director at Watershed in Newcastle, said Sacaridiz has nothing to worry about. He’s an excellent artist and thinker, and his career in academics proves that he knows how to teach and relate to students.

Hunter laughs at the memory of her first meeting with Sacaridiz. They had talked on the phone during the interview process, but she didn’t know what he looked like. When she met him, she was surprised how much he looked like Kestenbaum — both are physically slight, with dark hair, and both are animated in their demeanor.

“It will take most of the summer season, but Paul will become the face of Haystack,” Hunter said, “even if it is similar to Stu’s.”